Reading Sir Sayyid on Science-Religion Compatibility through the Prism of Tradition-Modernity Balance

Reading Sir Sayyid on Science-Religion Compatibility through the Prism of Tradition-Modernity Balance

Emphasising a ‘rationalist’ approach to Islam and to religious matters, Sir Sayyid believed that there is no contradiction between Word of God (Qur’an) and Work of God (Nature)

Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan (1817-1898) was a multi-dimensional personality: a pioneer of Islamic modernism, educational and political activist, theologian, journalist, and the chief organiser of 19th-century Islamic reformist thought in the sub-continent. Recognised as the first Indian Muslim to feel the need, and working, for a fresh orientation of Islam, Sir Sayyid called for a bold new theology (jadid ilm al-kalam) or reinterpretation of Islam. His contribution mainly falls in the educational and socio-religious reformation.
Back in 1960s, Aziz Ahmad described Sir Sayyid’s achievements as of a religious thinker in the context of Islamic modernism, which can be seen as tackling two broadly distinct problems: “the rationalisation of the minutiae of non-essential dogma, and the liberalisation of Islamic law”. Regarding the latter, Sir Sayyid’s “work is so dynamic and constructive” that it “made tremendous impression on modern Islam in general and on Indian Islam in particular”. Similarly, Wilfred Cantwell Smith remarked that the “ideas which Sir Sayyid was putting forth, and the religion he fashioned, was explicitly and in fact an Islam thoroughly compatible with progress,…, liberal and humanitarian morality, and its scientific rationalism”. This is how Sir Sayyid’s thought and contribution, as a socio-religious reformer, was perceived in the 20th century.
Coming straight to the 21st century, Dr Farhan Ahmad Nizami states that Sir Sayyid was “one of the architects of a Muslim intellectual renaissance in India hardly imaginable in the mid-nineteenth century”, for his efforts and contribution as a “scholar, social reformer, theologian, political thinker, journalist, legislator, cultural historian, pioneer in comparative religious studies, advocate for mass education”, and in many other fields. He, and his legacy, remains relevant even today for many reasons, and one of the major reasons, for Nizami, is that “the issues he faced 150 years ago are, for Muslim communities everywhere, as current as they were then, and perhaps even more intractable.”
These statements are self-evident regarding the impact, influence and relevance of Sir Sayyid’s scientific and rational thought, both in past and present. Within this context, and keeping in view the birth anniversary of this great reformer, this article presents an assessment of Sir Sayyid’s scientific thought, by highlighting his stance on Religion-Science compatibility.
Sir Sayyid’s Stance on the ‘Religion-Science Compatibility’: Is Islam compatible with science? Or is there conformity between reason and revelation? This was one of the fundamental issues faced, and addressed, by the Muslim modernists of 19th century, including Sir Sayyid. Besides ‘demythologising’ the Qur’anic interpretation and calls for renewed ijtihad, one of the crucial and significant themes in the writings of Sir Sayyid was to characterise congruence between the Sacred Text and science and reason. A staunch believer of Religion-Science compatibility, he considered natural law and divine law to be the same, because, he believed, revelation cannot be opposed to scientific actuality and that an agreement between God’s word and work is essential. His object was to remove apparent contradictions between Islamic teachings and science—hence his oft-repeated thesis: ‘Islam is nature and nature is Islam’. He, thus, proposed a rule in case of perceived con?ict between a law of nature and the Qur’anic verse: the Work (nature) quali?es the Word (verse) of God; i.e., the Qur’an as the word of God cannot be in con?ict and contradiction with Nature as the Work of God: “There is no matter in the Qur’an disagreeing with the laws of nature”.
In his lecture, he puts this thesis in these words: “It would be highly irrational to maintain that God’s work and God’s word are different and unrelated to one another. All beings, including humans, are God’s work, and religion is His word; the two cannot be in conflict.” Thus, he concluded that “Islam is in full accordance with nature” because “Islam is nature and nature is Islam”.
Furthermore, Sir Sayyid argued that “if we keep in view the principles deducible from the Qur’an itself, we shall find that there is no contradiction between the modern sciences, on the one hand, and the Qur’an and Islam, on the other”.
He also believed that in secular matters where Islam is silent, Muslims should imitate the western practices. He believed in religious pluralism and considered it absurd to believe that God’s prophets appeared only in Arabia and Palestine to reform a handful of Arabs and Jews, and that other peoples were denied of knowledge of the divine. He may be considered, in Riffat Hassan’s analysis, as “a pioneer in what is now called ‘Inter-faith Dialogue’ … [as] he worked for greater understanding and goodwill and harmony among Muslim sects, and between Muslims and non-Muslims”.
Thus, the ideas put forth by him, and the religion “fashioned” by him, was, to use Smith’s terminology, “in fact an Islam thoroughly compatible with progress” and the “[Western] scientific rationalism”. It will be not an exaggeration to call Sir Sayyid as being, undoubtedly, the most rational in his approach and ideas.
Sir Sayyid’s Reformist Legacy and its Scholarly Reception: Various writings, both in past and present, have emphasised and appreciated different areas of Sir Sayyid’s thought and activity—social, political, religious, educational and cultural—in which he made reforms. But almost all agree that his prime achievement was a revival of Muslim morale and prestige in British India, and that to him goes the credit for having re-established the dynamism of the Muslims in India as a socio-political force. Sir Sayyid’s socio-religious reforms, of various sorts, which he initiated and introduced, have been highly appreciated, though sometimes criticised (by some ‘Ulama) as well. In this context, below is presented a brief summary of the views—praise and appreciation—of some of the scholars and writers (both Muslims and non-Muslims equally), revealing both the importance as well as relevance of Sir Sayyid’s reformist thought.
His efforts are regarded as a “dynamic and constructive achievement” that made a tremendous impression on modern Islam. In the words of Khaliq Ahmad Nizami, Sir Sayyid was one of the towering personalities in the galaxy of the 19th century Muslims reformers, who zealously worked to bring about a change in the Muslim thought and behaviour and in fact contributed many essential elements to the development of modern Indian society. Bashir Ahmad Dar has projected this image succinctly in these words: “He [Sir Sayyid] was the first man in modern India to realize the necessity for a new interpretation of Islam that was liberal, modern, and progressive”.
Similarly, for Francis Robinson, Sir Sayyid’s reformist efforts were “aimed to fashion Muslims who were able to operate with success in the world of Western knowledge and British power”. In his opinion, “Sayyid Ahmad’s achievement was more than just the fashioning of Islamic modernism and creating the key institution of Muslim higher education; he inspired innovation across a broad front designed to help Muslims embrace ‘modernity’, which came to be called the Aligarh movement”.
Conclusion: A true heir of Shah Waliullah’s reformist legacy and one of the pioneers of Islamic modernism, Sir Sayyid emphasised, in high terms, socio-religious and intellectual reform. He is truly recognized as the initiator of “a revolution in Muslim thought”, who called for a new theology to respond to the modern challenges and change. Emphasising a ‘rationalist’ approach to Islam and to religious matters, Sir Sayyid held the view that there is no contradiction between Word of God (Qur’an) and Work of God (Nature). In keeping with his rationalist attitude, he underscored the importance of Ijtihad and a rational interpretation of Islamic religious sources and thought, for he believed that both of these were necessary to make Islam acceptable to the new age, and that Muslims would not understand Islam and others would not appreciate it unless it was presented rationally. He, thus, proved as the pioneering representative of Islamic modernism in South Asia who presented a new orientation of Islam and reacted to the modern age.

The writer is Assistant Professor, Islamic Studies, at Govt Degree College Sogam, Kupwara. Feedback at [email protected]


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